“Hacerles creer que hay plomo” (“Convincing them there is lead”) : health, environment, and power in Abra Pampa, Argentina
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When the lead smelting plant Metal Huasi closed in the late 1980s, it left 60,000 tons of heavy metal waste deposited throughout Abra Pampa, Argentina, a town in the Northwestern province of Jujuy. Much of this waste, predominantly composed of lead, remains exposed to the air, over 20 years after the smelter has closed, and Abra Pampa residents await the completion of a polemical environmental remediation plan that was drafted in 2007 but is years behind schedule. The issue of lead contamination has largely been normalized and obscured by management of public information and scientific discourse, as well as through the active discrediting of evidence of human suffering in the town. Ethnographic research conducted in Abra Pampa in 2010 engages with Javier Auyero and Débora Swistun’s sociological work on “environmental suffering” and “toxic uncertainty”, concepts used to analyze how confusion on sources, effects, and solutions to widespread environmental contamination is socially constructed and reflects political power dynamics. In Abra Pampa, much uncertainty about the gravity and extent of lead contamination has been compounded and capitalized upon by officials working in association with the lucrative mining industry in Jujuy. This case study posits that disagreement among Abra Pampa residents on the actual health risks that exposure to lead waste poses is largely a result of contradictory studies and long periods of governmental inaction toward environmental remediation. Additionally, discourse on the dangers of lead contamination among Abra Pampa residents is fragmented, reflecting class bias and discrimination that tends to blame certain residents for exposure to contamination. Despite several published studies indicating dangerously high levels of lead in residents’ blood, concerned residents liken their consistent criticism of governmental inaction on the issue to a process of “convincing” authorities that there is indeed lead, and that it represents a threat to the population. This case study concludes with sketches of some of the possibilities for mobilization toward positive change in Abra Pampa – namely pressuring governmental agencies into providing full environmental and health remediation – which parts from Auyero and Swistun’s notion that widespread toxic uncertainty might preclude such mobilization.